Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini’s Visit to France
Bernini in France: An Episode in Seventeenth-Century History
The old castle-fortress of the Louvre was originally built by a restless, truculent monarch, Philip II Augustus, starting in 1204; it stood outside the walls of Paris as a military redoubt while the French kings occupied that structure on the Ile de la Cité known today as the Palais de Justice. As a fortress, the Louvre was steadily enlarged by a succession of monarchs until in the sixteenth century François I resolved to tear down the medieval castle and raise in its place a château in the then new “Italian” style. But converting a fort to a royal residence was a tremendous project, progress was slow because of wars both foreign and domestic, and from monarch to monarch the plans kept changing. After successive revisions and additions by Henri II, his widow Catherine de Médicis, Henri IV, and Louis XIII, the still expanding structure was left in a considerable muddle.
Different parts of the building were not always on the same scale or in comparable styles; some were not even aligned with one another. Louis XIV as he grew into his young manhood (born in 1638, he had been king since the age of five) resolved to complete the palace in a manner worthy of the king he was determined to become. Having dismissed several French architects and expressed impatience with others, he caused his chief minister Colbert to let it be known in Italy that an architect was wanted who would lead the great work to a triumphant conclusion. There was the semblance of a public competition, but the choice fell inevitably on the Cavaliere Gianlorenzo Bernini; and after many submissions, revisions, and contractual negotiations he actually came to France in the summer of 1665.
Bernini was no small catch for the French monarchy. Born in 1598, he achieved early fame as a prodigiously talented sculptor. He had created, in addition to virtuoso statues like the Apollo and Daphne and the Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, spectacular public structures like the Fountain of the Rivers in Piazza Navona. He had built palazzi and churches throughout Rome; he had devised and erected the noble colonnade which so effectively frames the façade of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, and erected the unforgettable baldacchino that stands proudly, almost insolently, in the crossing of that church. In 1665 he was hard at work on the cathedra Petri, the throne of Saint Peter, in the rear of the basilica. Alexander VII was most reluctant to part with his favorite architect, even for a summer; but the French monarchy was too powerful to trifle with, so in June of 1665 Bernini and his entourage appeared near Paris and were met on the road by the king’s special ambassador, Paul Fréart de Chantelou, one of the many maîtres d’hôtel at King Louis’s court.
Chantelou came from a family of the lesser nobility in the province of Maine; an experienced civil servant and a supple courtier, he was just fifty-six years old during the fateful summer …